Q & A: NYC Cycling Advocate Caroline Samponaro

By Genevieve Walker

It was Caroline Samponaro’s first taste of freedom in the Connecticut suburbs, on a red BMX-style kid’s bike like the one in E.T., that kindled a long-term relationship with the bicycle. Fast-forward to a year-long bike tour of Japan, an undergrad thesis on New York City cycling at Columbia University and a reconnection to fitness through spinning, and you find 33-year-old Samponaro (above) at her current post as director of bicycle advocacy for Transportation Alternatives.

Editor’s Note: Caroline Samponaro is moderating a panel on social justice at today’s National Women’s Bicycling Summit in Long Beach, CA.

These days, Caroline commutes six and a half miles to work. She owns three bikes: a single-speed, a geared bike with a rack for panniers and a cargo bike built in conjunction with Fast Boy Cycles.

With the launch of Citi Bike sharing on the horizon for next spring, we asked Caroline to share her perspectives on the future of cycling in NYC. She sat down over lunch to discuss BikeNYC.org, how to get more women on bikes, and what T.A. is doing to prep for bike sharing:

Q. Do you expect the Citi Bike sharing program to be an immediate hit, or do you foresee any potential hiccups?

A. One thing for sure is that no matter how big the program is there will be demand for it to be bigger. It’s the reality of living in New York. I can see bike sharing integrating really well with our streetscape and other transit options. The next obvious step is for all the people who aren’t going to get it right away to say, Where’s mine? When can I get this, too?

Based on how London’s program is working, you can see that we’re not going to have vast vandalism problems; the bikes are going to become an asset that people want to take care of.

Q. How will New York cycling, and the bike market, change with the launch of bike share?

A. We did a little snap poll at T.A. We asked what kind of bikes people ride, and we saw that it’s almost entirely city bikes––the urban commuter style. That’s great, because what we’re finding is that bike shops are reporting that they are selling city bikes and large urban commuter bikes more than they used to. That industry is generally shifting.

I went to Paris in 2007, and before I went I had been riding my fixed-gear with drop bars, all hunched over. In Paris I was riding the bike share, Velib––riding slow, upright––and I got back on my bike [in New York] with my backpack, and I thought, This is horrifying. This is so scary. I’m not safe in this position, and it’s not comfortable. I totally changed my bike and put on upright handlebars. I think that’s going to be the case for a lot of people. If you are introduced to a bike share bike as your first bike, well then of course you’re not going to buy a dropped handlebar bike to ride around the city. People will give up this whole idea that you have to ride that kind of bike. Bike share is going to just tip that over the edge.

The other thing that we get excited about at T.A. is eye-to-eye contact. The thing that is so great about riding your bike around the city is you get to see it in a different way. I’ll stop and talk to people, or people will ask me questions. When you’re hunched over, you’re missing out on that. There are all sorts of people who theorize––urbanists––that the more eye-to-eye contact we have in cities the healthier they are, the safer they are, the more livable they are.

Q. What is one thing that new cyclists in New York City should keep in mind?

A. The first thing I would say is, look out for car doors. Ride three feet away from car doors, expect for them to open. It’s kind of depressing, but it’s one of those things.

I think that we are not at the point yet where drivers are always looking out for bike riders and that’s a really common, easy way to get injured. And it’s so preventable.

We’re working hard right now to get the TLC––The Taxi Limousine Commission––to require “look before you open the door” stickers. They do have the stickers now, but they are not required to use them. They can opt in. That doesn’t make up for all the other cars on the streets of course, but it will help.

Q. How is the NYPD responding?

A. We’re meeting with the city to make sure that the NYPD is going to step up its enforcement of dangerous driving, because there are going to be a lot new and less experienced bike riders. While it’s important to enforce the laws that relate to bike riding, and we support that, it’s really import to protect bike riders from dangerous drivers. That’s one thing. The other is just gaps in the bike network. For example, Sixth Avenue might give the impression to a bike share user that it’s a safe street to ride on, but for someone who uses it every day it’s prime dooring land. I think that a really big focus of T.A. in the next year will be, how can we quickly improve the infrastructure of the street? We’re starting campaigns to win bike lanes on Fifth and Sixth Avenues that are protected.

At times it feels like the NYPD is an immoveable object. They do not respond as other agencies do to innovation and change, but I think that the message is definitely being sent loud and clear that this is a priority. We can’t have 99 percent of an administration investing in safe bicycling and the NYPD saying they’re not going to do the same. It just doesn’t make sense.

Q. Do you see the pedestrian-to-car-to-cyclist dynamic changing once bike sharing is in full swing?

A. I know one thing that is going to change is the volume. That will help with the power dynamic –– the sheer volume of bikes. There’s a tendency now to get annoyed by bike riders because they’re the smallest, newest, easiest thing to get pissed off at. I was riding up Sixth Avenue and this cabby was honking at me. I was in the bike lane, I wasn’t in his way. I looked at him and he sort of gave me that look like, you’re right, I don’t know why I’m doing that. It was one of those moments when I thought, I totally feel you––you’re sitting in your car, you’re stuck in traffic, you’re stressed out. But that’s not cool. And I think that’s going to change. Again, as there are more cyclists and bicycling is more legitimately integrated, the bike won’t be the scapegoat for everyone’s frustration.

Q. You wrote that when you started riding in New York City it was rare to see another cyclist, let alone another female cyclist. That has obviously changed on both counts, though there still seems to be a gender disparity in the bike lanes. What are your thoughts on attracting more women to the bike lanes?

A. There’s no one answer, we know that. If we are talking about real culture shift, drawing a broader range of women to bicycling, safety is one part that is really important. I think that’s important to a lot of men, too.

A lot of this also to do with culture change: representations of bike riders in the media; your friendship circles. I’m a strong believer that change starts at home with your best friend, with your office mate. City officials who really care about biking, or that bike to work, have a ripple effect on their peers, then on policies and administrations. I think the same is true in social networks.

There are women who are doing amazing work in New York today as ambassadors for this social evolution within the bicycle riding community. At Give Love Bicycles there are these amazing women I am working with. One of them works in Washington DC. Her and her friend designed bags geared almost entirely for bike share bikes. They fit the dimensions of the rack or basket, and they are designed to fit your helmet. Then, shoes go underneath. This woman who lives in DC was totally obsessed with bike share, she rides it everyday, but was bothered because she didn’t want to carry her loose helmet and her sneakers around with her. So she and her friend came up with this really cool bag. Case in point of women coming up with solutions for making bike share work in their daily life. And this is going to continue to happen.

Q. Can you talk a little bit about BikeNYC.org: feedback, responses and what it ultimately aims to provide city cyclists?

A. We designed BikeNYC.org as a way to connect people beyond bike share to biking in New York. There will be a lot of really amazing ways to interact with bike share on your phone or on your computer; then, hopefully people are going to be excited to engage in other biking communities, ideas, and events. That was the thinking behind BikeNYC and the timing of it.

I think that we have had a good response. It launched during bike month, obviously, so that people could would use it the way they’ve used the bike month website in the past. But we’re seeing people continue to list their events, and the deal section is taking shape. There’s so much potential for this site to expand, change and adapt to demand.

Q. Last, something we always like to know: how do you deal with sweat when riding a bike in the city?

A. I ride really slow. I don’t tend to do the whole change of clothes thing because that bothers me on principle. Am I going to the gym? No, I’m just riding my bike to work. The idea that you’re going to sweat more on your bike than going in and out of the subway, that’s totally not true. At least when you’re riding your bike you get the breeze.